A version of this story about Todd Haynes and “The Velvet Underground” first appeared in the Documentaries Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“Carol” and “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes has shown a knack for music in films like “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There,” which took the stories of musicians like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan and turned them into fun-house fiction that also got to the heart of their music and personas. But with the brilliant documentary “The Velvet Underground,” Haynes moves into nonfiction filmmaking with an immersive look at the commercially unsuccessful but hugely influential band that came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in New York in the late 1960s.
While Velvets leader Lou Reed died in 2013, Haynes interviewed band members John Cale and Mo Tucker, as well as lots of others who were around the Warhol scene at the time. Without much performance footage of the band to work with, the director turns the film itself into a performance.
At a certain point, maybe 40 minutes into the film, the barrage of images and sound becomes so relentlessly all-encompassing that I felt as if I was inside the music, or maybe the music was inside me.
I love that. That’s exactly what we had hoped. Because after decades of different cultural acceptance of this music, it’s fully absorbed into the culture. When that’s the case, you lose the shock value or the impact or the sense of what made the music unique and radical — what people might have felt when they first heard it. That’s why we spent so much time tracing the etymology of the music in the film.
The way we approached it, me and my editors Affonso (Gonçalves) and Adam (Kurnitz) wanted to let the music and the images lead your experience. We had incredible interviews and the most generous and extraordinary people to talk about that time, from John Cale to Mo Tucker to Jonathan Richman, so it was a balancing act. But we wanted the oral history to be just behind your visual experience, to sort of make you feel as if you were discovering it yourself as you were watching.
Typically, a music documentary would start out with people, preferably famous people, telling you how important the music you’re about to see is.
But your movie has none of that. It just drops you into this scene.
Yeah, because with the Velvets it’s just so disproportionate how many people could tell you what it means and why it was influential to then, versus the people who were there during that time. I remember making a movie about Rimbaud when I was in college, and you’d go to the library and there’d be four little volumes of original writing, and then shelves and shelves of people telling you about how they identify with Rimbaud. And it’s similar with the Velvets.
But that speaks to something that is really unique about them, which I felt when I first heard the music in college. In some weird way, it triggers creative excitement. You feel like you could so something, like you had a voice. Part of it is that their marginality made you halfway there already, and by finding them you were already engaged with the creative process that they were engaged in. And I think what I learned in making the movie is that it’s because they were in the midst of these cross-currents of creative ingenuity and excitement in the ’60s and that was infectious and vital to who they were.
I’m a little older than you are, but too young to appreciate the Velvets when they were originally making music. For me, the way in was through hearing the Mott the Hoople version of “Sweet Jane,” then seeing Bowie live and he does “I’m Waiting for the Man” or “White Light/White Heat,” and then getting a Lou Reed album… How did it take happen for you?
That was pretty much my way in, too. I was definitely into Bowie, into Roxy Music, into punk rock and Patti Smith. I grew up in L.A., and there was the punk scene, and I’d go to clubs and hear all that music. And it was like “The China Syndrome,” where they talk about exposing the core. When you get to the Velvet Underground, you’re kind of revealing the core, and then it all makes sense.
As you were making your other music-related films like “Velvet Goldmine” or “I’m Not There,” which look at people like Bowie and Dylan through a fictional lens, did you think about making documentaries?
When I’m asked that I usually say no, but I’m not really sure. I would do research, as I’ve done in all my other films, and you see clips of Bowie in the Ziggy era, or of any almost any time, and it’s what instigated my strategies for how to tell those stories in quotation marks. Because I didn’t want to have to recreate David Bowie, right? Because you can’t. And Bob Dylan would have to be all these other actors being Bob Dylan, because you can’t presume to recreate that. I think in that way, I was always aware that the original footage of these incredible figures aren’t re-creatable, and required all kinds of devious strategies for how to tell fictional stories about these people.
How different was the process this time?
With those films, there was a distinct process that was very much about the writing stage and about looking at relevant genres of film for the stylistic languages that felt appropriate. Whereas the documentary process is really something that you are writing as you make it. And it starts with accumulating research, doing the interviews, learning to interview people. That was a new thing for me.
And then it became accumulating footage from all of the incredible archives. We had to begin with the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, to physically go there and connect with the people and make our case, because there’s no way we could make this film without their participation. And there was also a courtship of the various people from the Factory world. It’s like a dysfunctional family, and you have to deal with that.
In addition to interviewing people from that era, you also definitely took your cue from the stylistic language of the mid-1960s experimental cinema of New York.
Absolutely. We were totally doing that. The Velvets were in the midst of these crosscurrents of creative ingenuity and excitement in the ’60s and it was infectious and vital to who they were. So we knew from the beginning, “Chelsea Girls” is the diptych classic of Warhol’s, and I remember bringing in little diagrams: Here’s the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. If you shrink the 1.33:1 into two and put them flush on the left and right, it’s a diptych. Now what if we make it four in the middle? What if we explode it into 12 frames? There were all of these avenues of play and discovery that were just thrilling.
And once it settled into me and Afffonso and Adam alone with the material, it was just blissfull. I love cutting, and all three of us have Avids. We were cutting away like maniacs, and then COVID hit and Affonso and I were quarantining together in L.A. And it was all I ever wanted to do for the rest of my life, basically.
Obviously you needed the cooperation of the Warhol people to get film from his archive, but I would assume there were certain people you had to get on camera as well. If, for instance, John Cale had declined to participate…
No, no, no, no. That would been it. We needed John. John was the person whose blessing we needed for the entire project, without a doubt. It was a little more trial and error getting in touch with (Velvet Underground drummer) Mo Tucker. Our signals just kept missing her. We thought it was because she wasn’t interested, but it was just that she wasn’t getting my letters. We tried time and again to get (latter-day Velvets member) Doug Yule to participate and he just didn’t want to do it. I was disappointed in that. And we tried to get (Warhol associate) Gerard Malanga to participate and he wouldn’t do it, I’m not sure why.
As soon as Mary Woronov appears on screen, you know she’s going to be great. And she is. But for me, Jonathan Richman is the person I watched and thought, wow.
Seriously. You started by acknowledging this: I didn’t want to talk to all the people who followed the Velvet Underground because the list goes on and on and on. I didn’t want people to sit there and tell you why the music was important and why they love it, blah, blah, blah. So we didn’t have fans and we didn’t have musicians and we didn’t have music critics. And then Jonathan comes up, and he’s all those things. But he was there. I didn’t know that he went to 60 or 70 Velvets shows.
And he was basically their living mascot, living backstage with those guys and driving them to parties in his mother’s station wagon after shows. And he was so grateful for their kindness to him and their patience with him, you know? He made me weep by the end of his interview, it was just so heartfelt and so interesting.
Were you confident that you could find enough material from Lou Reed, who died in 2013, to make him an important voice in the film?
No. None of his archives include audio. A lot of it is, like, receipts and bizarre stuff. There’s a couple of cassette tapes of him. We culled through it, but it was a little disappointing. There was one amazing cassette tape of him at a poetry reading in 1970 reciting some lyrics from the songs.
But we just culled through every interview of Lou ever recorded and every broadcast we could get and tried to find anything and everything that he ever said about the Velvet Underground, which is surprisingly not a lot. He was a constant, conscious absence that we had to think about and try to supplement as best we could.